Having already been eliminated from Champions League qualification, Qarabag and HJK will both be determined to secure European football this season.
Qarabag booked their place in Champions League qualifying by dominating the Azerbaijan Premier League last term, losing just two of their 36 matches to finish nine points clear at the summit of the standings.
Not only have the Horsemen won each of the last two Azerbaijan Premier League titles, but they have also won nine of the previous 10, establishing a seemingly unstoppable hegemony on home soil.
However, Gurban Gurbanov’s men will not get the chance to test themselves against Europe’s elite teams this season, as they fell in the second round of Champions League qualifying earlier this month.
Despite achieving a dominant 6-1 aggregate victory over Lincoln Red Imps in the first round, Qarabag suffered a 4-3 defeat to Polish side Rakow Czestochowa in the second round, dropping into Europa League qualification as a result.
It is also worth noting that Qarabag lost their opening match of the 2023-24 Azerbaijan Premier League season, suffering a 1-0 defeat against Zira on Saturday, so the Blue and Whites will be eager to notch a positive result on Thursday.
While Qarabag’s domestic campaign started last weekend, HJK Helsinki have already played 19 Finnish Veikkausliiga matches in 2023, and the reigning champions are on course to defend their crown.
Thanks to a 4-2 victory over IFK Mariehamn last time out, HJK find themselves two points clear of second-placed KuPS, having recorded 10 wins, seven draws and two losses in the league this season.
Like Qarabag, HJK were unable to reach the third qualifying round for this season’s Champions League, as the Finnish champions edged out Northern Irish side Larne in the first round before losing 2-1 on aggregate against Norwegian club Molde.
That said, Toni Korkeakunnas’s side have won four of their last five matches across all competitions, with only two defeats coming in their previous 13 encounters.
Having endured a Europa League journey to forget last season – suffering five defeats in six group games while scoring just two goals – the Helsinki outfit will be desperate to make amends this time around.
Qarabag FK form (all competitions):
HJK Helsinki form (all competitions):
We say: Qarabag FK 1-1 HJK Helsinki
Given that both sides will likely approach the first leg with caution, we expect Qarabag and HJK to play out a tense and cagey draw on Thursday, setting up a winner-takes-all showdown in Helsinki next week.